The Church's Revamped Rite of Marriage Explained
By Fr. Thomas V. Berg
A fun part of helping a couple get ready for celebrating marriage is to let them know at some point that they — not the priest or deacon — are the ministers of the sacrament. The bride and groom mutually confer the sacrament of Matrimony upon each other when they express their consent before the Church. Once they’ve absorbed the thought, it inevitably brings a smile to their faces — and mine. This is just one of the many beautiful dimensions of the sacrament of Matrimony and the way we celebrate it in the Catholic Church.
Matrimony — like all sacraments in the Church — is celebrated according to a specific liturgical rite that has evolved through the centuries. Periodically the Church’s sacramental rites have undergone some changes and adjustments in accordance with the times under the direction of the Holy See. Most recently the Church has been revising the translations from the official Latin into vernacular languages of the Roman Missal and progressively updating the rites of each sacrament. The Rite of Marriage has undergone a series of adjustments, including matters of translation and structure.
This new Rite of Marriage went into effect in the United States last Dec. 30 on the Feast of the Holy Family. Since I had a wedding coming up in January, I felt I needed to familiarize myself — rather quickly — with the new rite.
To get some answers, I decided to ask an expert. I sent a series of questions to one of my colleagues on the faculty here at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York — Fr. Matthew Ernest, professor of liturgy and director of liturgical formation. He is also the director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese of New York. His answers were so thorough that I thought they also might be of interest for readers of Catholic Digest.
Let’s start with some basics: Is there a distinction between a “rite” and a “ritual”? And how long has the Church had a liturgical rite for the celebration of the sacrament of Matrimony?
The word rite can be used to refer either to a particular liturgical ritual (for example, the Rite of Marriage) or an expression of the faith encompassing many liturgical rituals (for example, the Byzantine rite, the Roman rite, and so on). Thus, sometimes the words rite and ritual are used synonymously, but in other cases, rite is used in a broader sense to refer to a family of liturgical ceremonies. Liturgical evidence suggests that, throughout much of the first millennium, a “Church rite” and a “domestic rite” of marriage developed simultaneously in the Christian community. Often a couple would be married at home and receive a priestly blessing at church. By the 12th century in the West, these traditions merged into one liturgical ceremony which now takes place entirely at church.
Apparently what we used to call the “Rite of Marriage” has undergone a name change and is now properly called the Order of Celebrating Matrimony. What’s the reason for the change?
The principles currently used for translating liturgical books aim to translate Latin into the vernacular in as precise a manner as possible. This sometimes results in the presence of Latin cognates in our English liturgical texts. An example of this is mentioned above; here, the Latin word ordo is now translated into English as “order,” rather than “rite.” However, in this case, there is not much of a practical difference between the meaning of these two words. In fact, the introduction to the Order of Celebrating Matrimony sometimes refers to the “Rite of Marriage” in its description of the wedding liturgy.
What revisions were made to the previous rite of marriage, and what are the principal changes we can expect to see at Catholic weddings from now on?
The principal changes in the new Order of Celebrating Matrimony include:
The presence of an expanded introduction (praenotanda)
The inclusion of additional choices for Scriptural readings
A clarification regarding several aspects of the Introductory Rites, including the entrance procession, the Penitential Rite, and the Gloria
An expansion of the given options for various prayers
The addition of several optional cultural customs, such as the arras and the lazo.
Perhaps the most significant change that most people will notice is the inclusion of the Gloria in ritual Masses for marriage. Although this requirement was also indicated in the 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal, many are only now becoming aware of the need to either sing or recite the Gloria during most wedding Masses.
Why were these changes made? What were the motives?
The revised Order of Celebrating Matrimony is, firstly, a retranslation of the post-Conciliar Rite of Marriage using the translation model set forth in the 2001 document, Liturgiam Authenticam. Accordingly, some of the liturgical texts that we have been proclaiming for the past 45 years will now be conveyed using a slightly different vocabulary and style of expression. As well, the Latin edition of the marriage rite has been revised to include several of the new features noted above. These new and altered aspects of the rite will be reflected in the Order of Celebrating Matrimony.
Does the celebration of Matrimony have to take place in the context of Mass?
Since the Eucharist is the center of Christian life, marriages between Catholics are usually celebrated within Mass. However, the introduction to the Order of Celebrating Matrimony indicates that a pastor may propose to the couple that their marriage be celebrated outside of Mass, taking into consideration the “necessities of pastoral care ... and the way in which the prospective spouses and those present participate in the life of the Church” (29). The Order of Celebrating Matrimony additionally states that in marriages between a Catholic and a person of another faith, the wedding ceremony would normally take place outside of the celebration of Mass.
What distinguishes the Order of Celebrating Matrimony from other aspects of a wedding (for example, the father of the bride walking her down the aisle) that do not form part of the rite but have become customary?
The Order of Celebrating Matrimony describes several rituals that, in most cases, form the core of the wedding liturgy. These include the reading of Scripture, the exchange of consent between the spouses, the blessing and exchange of rings, and the nuptial blessing. In accordance with the wishes of the Second Vatican Council, the Order of Celebrating Matrimony indicates that local customs may also be observed within the wedding liturgy when appropriate. The father of the bride escorting his daughter down the aisle is one example of these types of local customs. Other popular traditions include the blessing and exchange of the arras [a set of wedding coins] between the couple, the placing of the lazo over the couple [a large loop of rosary beads in a figure-eight shape placed around their necks after the exchange of vows], and the laying of the veil over the head of the bride and the shoulders of the husband. In some places, the practice of bringing flowers to a statue or image of Our Lady also takes place during the wedding liturgy.
Why should Catholics be interested in changes to a sacramental rite? Or maybe I could ask the broader question: Why should we care about liturgy? What does liturgy do for us?
Our liturgical celebrations are the most profound expression of the relationship between God and his Church. Through our rites and prayers, God speaks to us and blesses us. In these same rituals, we proclaim our belief in God and praise him for his goodness. As the Second Vatican Council summarized, “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10). In the case of the new Order of Celebrating Matrimony, the small changes recently made to this ritual book are meant to more clearly express both our belief in the truths of Christian marriage as well as the action of God, who joins a couple together for life by his grace.
I think for most Catholics in the pew, liturgy presents itself as something kind of enigmatic, kind of mysterious. It leaves one questioning: Why this element? What does that mean? Why are we doing this now? Explanations certainly help — and I hope readers are as grateful as I am for Fr. Ernest’s clarity. But the fact that liturgy remains a bit mysterious is actually good — and frankly necessary, in a sense — because liturgy is a doorway through which we enter mystically into the very mystery of Christ’s action in his Church and in our souls. Liturgy is that blessed portal through which we touch the mystery of God’s action and open ourselves in a unique way to the powerful touch of his grace in our hearts.